WASHINGTON — Local officials and community leaders on Wednesday pushed Congress to designate toxic chemicals that are contaminating drinking water as hazardous materials, which would trigger federal cleanup standards.
In addition, two Democratic senators from Michigan, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, introduced legislation that would put additional obligations on the Pentagon to initiate cleanup at military bases.
The chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, can be found in drinking water, soil and air across the country, and are a growing concern.
PFAS are commonly used in commercial products such as nonstick cookware and waterproof clothing.
The chemicals were also found in firefighting foam used by the Department of Defense and many airports.
Joanne Stanton, the co-founder of the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water in Pennsylvania, told the U.S. Senate Environment & Public Works Committee that the drinking water and soil in Warminster has been contaminated with PFAS from the firefighting foam used by the Department of Defense at nearby Air Force bases.
“The DOD is one of the largest polluters (of PFAS) in our country,” she said in her opening statement. “It’s ironic that the very entity whose job it is to protect the American people ended up giving a lot of Americans cancer and other diseases because of their irresponsibility in handling toxic chemicals.”
Stanton and James Kenney, the cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department, told senators they need to designate PFAS as a hazardous substance. That would spark the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or the Superfund law, to start cleanup of the chemicals at military sites.
“The environmental impacts and economic impacts are real for our state,” Kenney said, adding that contamination threatens the state’s nearly $3 billion agriculture industry as well as its tourism.
New Mexico is suing the Defense Department over PFAS contamination that has spread to several farms.
Kenney also recommended a federal drinking water standard for the chemicals, as there is currently a patchwork of state standards for PFAS.
Only a handful of states have either adopted or proposed maximum contaminant levels for PFAS, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Vermont, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina.
The EPA is in the process of regulating two of the most well studied toxic types of PFAS out of a class that ranges from 5,000 to 7,000 chemicals. Those two are known as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS.
The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, said in her opening statement that she agrees that EPA needs to set drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS.
“Assuring the American people’s confidence that their drinking water is safe is essential,” she said in her opening statement.
An independent panel of scientists found a probable link between exposure to PFOA and PFOS and multiple health problems, such as high cholesterol, thyroid disease, and testicular and kidney cancer.
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that specializes in research and advocacy work around agriculture, pollutants and corporate accountability, has found high levels of PFOA and PFOS in Brunswick County, North Carolina, with levels at 185.9 parts per trillion. One part per trillion is comparable to a drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Two other areas with high levels of the two chemicals are the Quad-Cities, which includes Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Des Moines. EPA’s nonbinding health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS is 70 parts per trillion.
Even though some states have passed their own drinking water standards for PFAS, military bases in those states have not adhered to cleanup standards because DOD is not required to follow state laws.
At the hearing, Stabenow expressed her frustration at this, as there are several bases in Michigan that have been resistant to initiating cleanup.
“We have detected PFAS on at least 10 bases in Michigan,” she said. “I definitely support establishing a strong national drinking water and cleanup standard for PFAS and I’m concerned about what happens before federal standards are in place.”
Stabenow and Peters introduced two bills Wednesday to direct the Defense Department to test for and clean up PFAS contamination at military installations. One of the bills would provide a one-time investment of $10 billion.
Michigan’s drinking water standards for PFOA is 8 parts per trillion and for PFOS is 16 parts per trillion.
Stabenow asked Kenney what Congress could be doing in the meantime to help pressure DOD to clean up the toxic chemicals at military bases.
Kennedy said that DOD needs to be given clear timelines for when cleanup should be completed and added that some cleanup timelines that have been set up are scheduled too late. He gave an example of one cleanup at Cannon Air Force base in New Mexico that is not set to start until 2028.
“That’s too late,” he said.
He added that Congress should have strict oversight of DOD’s implementation of Superfund law if PFAS is designated a hazardous substance.
“Declaring PFAS a hazardous waste would create that national framework that I think has been lacking and give us causal action to hold DOD accountable today,” he said.